8 tips to enhance foreign language learners’ editing skills in essay writing

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The following are eight editing strategies that can enhance the accuracy of foreign language learners’ written output. I tested their effectiveness in the context of my PhD study and the results were remarkable. For reasons of space I am only focusing on the strategies themselves and not on the instructional framework I used to model and ‘teach’ them. Teachers may elect to try them separately, or synergistically – which is the way I did.

  1. Raise student awareness of the differences between reading and proof-reading

A fundamental mistake made by students when they edit their essays is to ‘read’ the essay they wrote rather than ‘proof-read’ it. The two processes are different in that ‘reading’ focuses Working Memory’s attentional system on meaning, whereas ‘proof-reading’ focuses it on the surface level of the text (grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc.). Hence, when a foreign language learner is proof-reading by reading his/her text aloud or by sub-vocalizing, he/she is less likely to spot surface level errors (e.g grammar or spelling), especially those that are less obvious or less salient.

Consequently, if we want to enhance our students’ editing effectiveness we must raise their awareness of the differences between the two processes. Learners should be trained to focus solely on the ‘mechanics’ of the text when checking surface level accuracy whilst dealing with meaning in separate reviewing sessions.

  1. Task-related metacognitive knowledge

In making our student writers more effective editors, one of the greatest challenges is to enhance their task-related metacognition, which involves, amongst other things, knowing what their most common pitfalls are at all level of the texts, including surface level accuracy.

Higly metacognizant writers know what mistakes they make and before handing in/publishing a written piece they will look out for the mistakes they are more likely to make. For instance, I know that when I type-write an essay I often omit the ‘s’ at the end of words, write ‘of instead of ’or’, occasionally spell ‘than’ ‘then’ and omit copulas (‘is’ or ‘are’). Hence, I always scan my blogs or essays looking for errors with these words before publishing. I also know that I need to go through my drafts several times if I want to spot all of the mistakes.

In my PhD study I found that the vast majority of L2-students lack this kind of self-knowledge. Many of them do think they know the mistakes they make ; but when you ask them to list them, their accounts always differ substantially from reality. The lists they often provide is more likely to include the grammar items they found difficult to learn in lessons rather than the actual mistakes they make in writing. And even when they do get it right they provide very broad categories (e.g. verbs) which are not very helpful when proofreading.

This entails that when editing their essays many L2 students lack an important source of help. Hence, teachers who want to enhance their student’s editing effectiveness may have to bring their most common errors into their focal awareness in as much detail as possible whilst enhancing their knowledge of the grammar rules that those erros refer to.

The technique I used in my PhD study to achieve this was quite complex and laborious ; however, a simpler yet effective way to address this issue would be to ask the students to log their main errors systematically on receiving each essay (not too many) and label them according to the categories they refer to (e.g. word-order, adjectival agreement, irregular adjective) ; count and note down the errors made in each category ; research and explain the rule broken (when they don’t know it) and work out a memory strategy (e.g. a mnemonic) which may help prevent the error or facilitate recall of that rule in the editing of the next essay. If this process is carried out week in week out, it is likely to enhance their awareness of the mistakes they normally make.

  1. Selective monitoring

Selective monitoring entails focusing on one major error category at a time in the editing phases of essay writing. So, one may go through one’s essay the first time looking for noun-to-adjective agreement mistakes ; the second round, focusing on errors with a specific tense ; the third round searching for word order issues, etc.

  1. Looking out for ‘tricky contexts’

Some linguistic contexts pose more challenges to the novice-to-intermediate writer than others and are consequently more likely to cause them to err. For instance, in my PhD study I identified long sentences loaded with adjectives and including more than one tense as contexts where most of my students made several mistakes. But ultimately, any context which requires the learner, in the transcribing phase of sentence production (i.e. when ideas are translated into words), to apply grammar rules and lexis one he/she has not fully automatised is more likely to cause errors ; this is because the challenging structure(s) will absorb most of the attentional resources causing less salient features to go unheeded – unless, that is, one makes a conscious effort to focus on them. Obviously, the more the problematic grammar structures one is required to handle are, the greater the chances to err.

In my study I also found out that when the students write fairly long essays, they are more likely to make mistakes with more challenging sentences and structures towards the end of their piece, possibly because they are more tired, less motivated (e.g. ‘I just want to get over and done with it’) or are running out of time (e.g. when writing under exam constraints).

  1. Focus on word-endings

As already discussed in a previous blog, the anglo-saxon brain is wired to focus on the beginning of words, hence teachers should endeavour to focus their L1 English learners of French or Spanish on word ending accuracy. In the same blog I also explained why agreement mistakes pose challenges to our students’s cognitive processing both during editing and language production.

My old French teacher used a very effective strategy to enhance our chances of spotting and fix this kind of errors ; he made us ‘track down’ for each adjective or verb in our essays the noun or pronoun it referred to by using our pencil/pen ; once identified it, we would check if the ending applied was correct and tick it to show him we had checked it. This was a very effective way to scaffold checking for agreement mistakes ; I often use it during 1 : 1 conferences with less accurate writers and occasionally with groups of motivated novice students, but not with all of my classes, as some learners do find it tedious.

  1. Sense monitoring by back-translation

Back-translation can be useful as an editing technique, when used properly. One of the uses is to check that what one has written makes sense in the students’ mother tongue. In my study, when learners back-translated slowly, word for word, they were more likely to spot word omissions – especially omissions of copula (e.g. ‘is’ or ‘are’)- , wrong use of tenses and, generally, intelligibility issues.

  1. Error Checklists

Error checklists are often used in many MFL classrooms. I have used them myself with varying success. In my study and classroom experience, though, they worked best when the checklists were not entirely imposed by the teacher but included items chosen by the learners themselves based on the error-logging process mentioned in point 2, above. Their ownership of the process, according to my students, seems to enhance their intentionality to eradicate error.

  1. ‘Editing successes’ log

This is a worksheet that the teacher gives the student after looking through the essay and identifying the presence of a number of mistakes across various categories. S/he will then give back the essay to the student alerting him/her to the presence of X number of mistakes in it pertaining to specific categories; the students is then charged with the task of spotting and correcting as many of them  as possible whilst logging each mistake and correction on the worksheet as homework.

In conclusion, these are some of the strategies that teachers may model to their students in an attempt to enhance their ability to effectively edit the surface level accuracy of their essays or narrative writing. For the above strategies to be acquired by the learners it will not be enough to just present them to the students, model their use and give them a one-off practice session. Students need extensive practice in the execution of these strategies and this practice must be scaffolded by reminders to use the strategies and supported by regular teacher feedback. These reminders can be as simple as worksheet or google docs with 5 or 6 key questions that they have to answer very concisely , such as :

  • Have you read through the essay checking meaning only ? How many times ?
  • Have you read through the essay checking grammar accuracy only ? How many times ?
  • Have you checked the following items ?

-noun/pronoun to adjective agreement

– subject to verb agreement

Etc.

Scaffolding and teacher feedback are the most crucial aspects of the process.

Before teachers even start the editing instruction process, it may be useful to focus the students on the importance of accuracy and provide them with a solid rationale as to why you are modelling the target strategies to them. In strong communicative approaches or in contexts where accuracy is not in the students’ focal awareness, in the initial phases of the training teachers may have to work harder on hammering home why certain categories of mistakes can be particularly detrimental to the effectiveness of communication and may need to be focused on. The ultimate goal ought to be to forge competent autonomous editors able to transfer the above strategies not only from one semantic context to another but also across languages.

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